Green and pleasant plans

Virginijus Sinkevičius, the EU’s youngest commissioner speaks to Ben Goldsmith, chair of the Conservative Environment Network, about Cop26, collective responsibility and blue carbon


Virginijus Sinkevičius is the EU’s youngest commissioner. He is charged with ensuring the environment, oceans and fisheries remain at the core of the European Green Deal. Ben Goldsmith, chair of the Conservative Environment Network, talks to him about Cop26, collective responsibility and blue carbon.

Ben Goldsmith: European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has pinned her leadership on the success of the European Green Deal, and at its centre is reaching net zero emissions by 2050. This is a collective target, rather than one that commits each individual member state to net zero. Commissioner, are you confident that all member states will pull their weight to deliver this ambition?  

Virginyus Sinkevičius: The European Union is a diverse family of 27 member states, each with their own national specificities. This has to be reflected in how we implement the European Green Deal. The transition to a climate-neutral continent by 2050 must be achieved in an equitable and fair manner, taking into account that member states have diverse economies and energy dependencies. 

Solidarity is hence a core component of our climate policies. Setting clear national targets while safeguarding flexibility is crucial so that every country can make its fair contribution without causing disproportionate adverse social impacts on its citizens. For instance, the regulation Governance of the Energy Union and Climate Action sets common rules for member states to follow when planning, reporting and monitoring, and it also establishes methods for tracking the implementation of climate legislation. 

Under the Effort Sharing Regulation, member states have legally binding annual greenhouse gas emission targets over the next ten years for sectors not covered by the EU Emissions Trading System. The regulation recognises the different capacities of each country by setting individual country targets in accordance with GDP per capita.

EU funds and budgetary measures are also helping EU countries to take the necessary action to achieve our collective climate ambitions. Some 30 per cent of the EU’s long-term budget from 2021 to 2027 will be spent on fighting climate change. Similarly, the temporary recovery instrument – the Recovery and Resilience Facility – is funding member states’ recovery plans. Within each of these plans, at least 37 per cent of expenditure must go towards climate investments and reforms.

The Just Transition Fund is helping member states to alleviate the social and economic costs resulting from the climate transition, while the Modernisation Fund assists ten lower-income Member States to modernise their energy systems and move away from fossil fuel dependency.

These measures are supporting all EU members states in their efforts to contribute to our overall ambition of reaching climate neutrality by 2050.

BG: The UN Climate Conference in Glasgow in November will be the next pivotal moment for climate diplomacy since the signing of the Paris Agreement. What should Cop26 aim to achieve? 

VS: The EU is a global leader in taking ambitious climate action, but we cannot solve this crisis alone. The world requires strong cooperation between countries, businesses and civil society to cope with the challenge of securing a safe climate for the future. This is at the heart of the upcoming Cop26. While the EU is reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, which currently account for around 7.5 per cent of the global total, overall global emissions are still rising. 

I want to stress that we very much welcome the United States’ return to the Paris Agreement and the many pledges from governments around the world on emissions reductions and climate neutrality. However, we are in a critical decade requiring immediate and sustained action by everyone. Emissions must be at least halved by 2030 if we are to have any chance of achieving the Paris agreement’s goal of limiting the global temperature to no more than 1.5C. This is why it is vital that countries come to the Cop26 with more ambitious emissions reductions targets and climate ambitions. 

It is also pivotal that Cop26 catalyses stronger climate finance commitments from high-income countries to support the green transition in low-income countries and to enhance the adaptation capacities of countries already facing the worst impacts of climate change. We are currently working closely with countries around the world to help support their ambitious pledges for climate adaptation and mitigation.

So in Glasgow, we really need global solidarity and ambitious leadership to ensure an inclusive, bold, low-emission and climate-resilient global recovery from the Covid pandemic. The clock is ticking and a return to business as usual is not an option.

BG: How can we maximise nature-based solutions, particularly “blue carbon” from mangroves, seagrass meadows and kelp forests, to help tackle climate change and biodiversity loss? And will the potential of blue carbon be raised at this year’s UN biodiversity and climate summits?

VS: Much of the carbon in global carbon cycles is stored in oceans. We therefore need to properly acknowledge the great potential of oceans and blue carbon solutions in our fight against climate change and to restore biodiversity. This is certainly a message we intend to bring to the 15th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity and to Cop26. 

The EU’s biodiversity strategy for 2030 already paves the way. In that strategy, we identify natural capital investment as an incredibly valuable opportunity for our member states – and all countries for that matter – to create prosperity, sustainability and resilience. To help EU countries take ambitious action in this area, we are preparing a nature restoration law which will, for example, set binding targets to restore degraded ecosystems in marine and coastal areas. We know that restoring ecosystems such as mangroves, kelp forests and seagrass meadows generates multiple benefits, including the mitigation of climate change, restoring biodiversity and of course sustaining economic activity as well. 

Speaking of the blue economy, one area that deserves more attention is the algae sector.  Algae production has a low carbon footprint, does not require land, fertilisers or fresh water, and has huge potential for carbon sequestration. When carried out in an environmentally sustainable manner, this sector can significantly contribute to our objectives under the European Green Deal on decarbonisation, zero pollution, circularity, biodiversity and sustainable food production. With this in mind, we are developing a new initiative to increase sustainable algae production, ensure safe consumption and boost innovative use of algae and algae-based products in Europe. 

BG: A recent landmark study found that global annual emissions from bottom trawling are equivalent to emissions from the aviation sector. However, emissions from the seas are not included in our greenhouse gas inventories. Should the EU now incorporate marine carbon stocks and flows into its carbon accounts and net zero targets?

VS: I am aware of this study, which is indeed interesting, but requires detailed analysis and verification on a more local scale. Meanwhile, we are working to develop an action plan to conserve fisheries’ resources and protect marine ecosystems. This means considering the damaging activity done to the seabed, and looking at how we can protect the seabed from the gear that damages it most. We must also think about the carbon storage capacity of marine sediments and their role in reducing CO2 emissions.

Of course, any release of carbon sequestered in sediments will add to ocean acidity but it will not necessarily reach the atmosphere where it would intensify global warming. The new “Mission Ocean”, under the EU’s research programme Horizon Europe, has been expressly designed to investigate issues like this in its preparation of blue parks and marine protected areas. The issue would also need to be discussed in the framework of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

BG: The G7 recently committed to the 30×30 target to protect 30 per cent of land and seas by 2030. How can the EU encourage its other allies to support and deliver this target?

VS: I welcome the G7’s recent commitment to protect 30 per cent of land and seas by 2030. As with the transition to climate neutrality, protecting nature and the vast web of life on Earth must be a global endeavour. We need to protect nature for its intrinsic value, as well as for its contributions to people and the benefits it provides. Without nature, we will not be able to fight poverty, achieve our climate objectives and transition to a fair and sustainable society.

Within the EU, we have already committed to protect at least 30 per cent of land and seas by 2030 in our biodiversity strategy for 2030. We want to achieve that through equitably and effectively managed networks of protected areas. While the EU will strive to achieve these targets, we are also working to ensure that nature is protected and respected globally.

The commission is a member of the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, an intergovernmental coalition of more than 60 countries campaigning for an ambitious post-2020 global biodiversity framework, including the 30×30 target. In addition, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has endorsed the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature. More than 80 heads of state and government signed this pledge, which is a commitment to halt and reverse biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation by 2030. 

And, of course, we underline the importance of the 30×30 target in much of our outreach, such as our global coalition United for Biodiversity. The coalition has already brought together more than 280 institutions from over 50 countries, and calls for stronger mobilisation in raising awareness about protecting biodiversity.

BG: You have a background as chair of the Committee on Economics and as minister of the economy and innovation in Lithuania. An estimated 39 million people are employed globally in fisheries, but a third of global fish stocks are being overfished. More than a third of marine mammals and around a third of the world’s shark species are under threat of extinction. So does the future of the blue economy worry you? How can legislators work with the fisheries industry to ensure sustainability in the sector? 

VS: The challenges we face are undoubtedly great. However, I am confident that together we can overcome those challenges and pass on a more sustainable marine environment, more resilient fisheries and blue economy sector to the next generation. 

Scientific evidence clearly tells us that sustainable management and conservation of fish stocks and good environmental practices translate into the highest possible catches for fishermen and women in the long run. That is why all three dimensions of sustainability – environmental, social and economic – are at the core of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy. Our upcoming action plan will further exploit the links between fisheries and environment to ensure that balance. In all of this, it is very important that we involve the fisheries sector and other stakeholders when developing and implementing policy. Having them on board is the key to success. 

With the new European Maritime, Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund 2021-2027, the EU has a budget of €6.1bn to support efforts to protect and restore fish stocks and other sensitive species. At the same time, we will provide socio-economic support to fishers and local communities, as well as to other sectors such as aquaculture. 

When talking about our seas and coasts, we have to consider the full blue economy though, not just fisheries. That blue economy has an incredible potential to generate growth and jobs, and also to directly contribute to our sustainability objectives under the European Green Deal. This means investing in offshore renewables, the blue bioeconomy, green shipping, ocean observation and so forth, together with fisheries and aquaculture, which remain as important as ever. 

That is why the European Commission recently proposed a new approach for a sustainable blue economy that will boost the decarbonisation of the blue economy, reduce pollution at sea, push for more circularity, and protect marine biodiversity. 

BG: This year world leaders will gather to agree on a new set of international biodiversity targets under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, including targets for ocean protection. Is the EU working with partners such as the UK to help ensure the new framework will aim to halt and reverse the decline in nature by 2030?

VS: We greatly appreciate that the UK places such importance on nature, and that the incoming UK presidency of COP26 is working to bring global leaders together to commit to immediate and meaningful climate action. As biodiversity loss and climate change are mutually dependent and reinforce each other, we will have to address both crises in a coherent manner.

I can confidently say the EU is ready to lead efforts on biodiversity and work with partners in high-ambition coalitions to settle this ambitious new global framework at the CBD COP 15. We are ready to push for this summit to deliver for biodiversity what the Paris summit did for climate; our ambition is a global commitment to rebalance our unhealthy relationship with the planet. As you can imagine, we are currently mobilising all tools of external action and international partnerships to help develop this framework. It will be mainstreamed through bilateral and multilateral engagements, through the EU’s Green Deal diplomacy, and forthcoming green alliances. Work is set to continue with partner countries and regional organisations to put in place measures to protect and sustainably use sensitive maritime ecosystems and species, with a special focus on marine biodiversity hotspots. 

I want to stress that the post-2020 global biodiversity framework in particular must aim to put nature on a path to recovery by 2030. This means halting the biodiversity loss we are seeing all around the world well before 2030.

BG: The Conservative Environment Network, which I chair, is working to build an international network of conservatives that champion ambitious, market-based solutions to environmental issues. Have you witnessed a step change in other centre-right parties from around the world in promoting green conservative principles?

VS: As part of the broader policy mix, green taxation and other market-based instruments can contribute to reaching the EU’s environmental policy goals, by encouraging changes in the way we consume or produce. Explained in simple terms, green taxation and other market-based instruments are an excellent nudge factor that can lead to more sustainable patterns of producing and consuming in the future, in a socially just and equitable manner.

To guide this transition, we need to make sure that the polluter pays, a fundamental principle of the EU treaties. For that matter, we will continue to encourage member states to include green taxation in their fiscal reforms – through the Recovery and Resilience Facility, the European Semester and the Environmental Implementation Review. We will also use these channels to encourage member states to phase out environmentally harmful subsidies, in particular those on fossil fuels.

Indeed, we are already seeing a number of member states proposing green taxes as part of their recovery and resilience plans. And I also believe that a turn to green politics has been reached not only in the mind of society, but across political sphere.

BG: Your party, the Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union, has long been a champion of conservative environmentalism. What is the situation in your country and what experiences have you had in both talking about and tackling climate change? 

VS: As a country which gained its independence not that long ago, Lithuania has been tackling many challenges during recent decades – social and economic, but also with security, energy dependence and others. Climate change was not among the top priorities in the political agenda, and this is the case in fact for the vast majority of central and eastern European countries.

But the situation is rapidly changing. Lithuanian society is becoming more vocal on the issue of global climate crisis. Citizens are starting to choose environmentally friendly solutions in their everyday living, especially the young people, and political parties across the spectrum are including a green angle in their election programme. 

So climate change, nature protection and other European Green Deal related topics occupy an important place in Lithuanian national politics and for the people. 

4th November 2021